Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

A Brief History of South Africa, Part II

As I’ve read in the introductions of many, many books, South Africa is a country that can only be understood through its history.

Below is an extremely condensed summary of events that set the stage for recent South African politics.  It’s hard for me to believe that something as crazy as Apartheid existed in my lifetime!  But the more history I read, the more I understand how such policies emerged – even if I can never condone them.

History changes dramatically depending on who is telling the story.  Please not that my information has been largely collected from European and American sources.  I imagine this narrative would be very different coming from a Zulu or Afrikaner.

Once upon a time, prior to European contact, South Africa had many different native peoples.  Some of the major groups include the Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele.  See why this country now has 11 national languages?

One day in 1487, the first European landed in South Africa.  Although the Portuguese sailed around Africa’s southern tip, they didn’t stay or set up any colonies.  It wasn’t until many moons later in 1652 that the Dutch established a trading post in Cape Town on behalf of the Dutch East India Trading Company.  Other European settlers including the Flemish, German, and French immigrated to South Africa and joined the Dutch to become the group known as the Boers (Dutch for “farmer”).

As you could probably guess from their name, the Boers established farms in the Cape Town area.  There were frequent wars between the Boers and the neighbouring African tribes – most notably the Zulu and Xhosa – as they all competed for territory.

Despite these conflicts, South Africa was a prosperous location for the settlers.  As a result, the British decided to establish their presence in Cape Town as well.  Britain occupied the Cape Colony for various reasons in 1795-1803 and again in 1806.

The Afrikaners did not like British control, to say the least.  Although there were many reasons why they didn’t want to be subjected under the Brits (who would?), one major disagreement focused on slavery.  Britain officially abolished slavery in 1833, but the Afrikaners viewed slavery as necessary for their pastoral way of life. 

Fed up with their occupiers, in 1835 approximately 12,000 Boers departed from the Cape Colony to venture inland.  This group later became known as the Voortrekkers and their journey is called the Great Trek.

It’s hard to imagine what the Voortrekkers must have endured.  Not only was the environment extremely harsh to travel (imagine pushing ox wagons over mountains then navigating them back down), but they were constantly fighting African tribes who were trying to save their homeland from foreign invaders.

The Boers set up their own Boer Republic in what are now the Gauteng, Limpop, Mpumlanga, and North West provinces as well as the Free State.  These settlers eventually became known as the Afrikaners.

Map of South Africa

The Great Trek established the tone for Afrikaner politics through the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s.  Many (but not all) Afrikaners viewed themselves as victims of outside sources: the British, the native Africans, and the rest of the world who condemned Apartheid and set up economic sanctions.   This “us-versus-them” mentality justified their need to protect their own culture, which morphed into the extreme policies of Apartheid.

If you’re interested in reading more, I highly recommend The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey (1991) by Adam Hochschild for an insightful and compassionate look at South Africa’s history in addition to the events leading up to the end of Apartheid in the 1980s.


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One thought on “A Brief History of South Africa, Part II

  1. Hello,

    This is my most viewed blog post. Each day at least a couple people view this entry (according to my WordPress statistics). I assume you’re all different people and not the same few reading this over and over.

    I sincerely hope that I haven’t offended anyone with my interpretation of history. Is this post being passed through the internet as an example of an insulting or ignorant or untrue explanation of the Great Trek? Please feel free to comment if you disagree with anything I’ve written. Or, conversely, if you agree with it.


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